I recently came across the work of Togo-born photographer Hélène Amouzou. It appealed to me for several reasons. Firstly, the black and white (sometimes) ghostly self-portraits remind me of the work of Francesca Woodman – an artist that I admire and whose short life I have recently studied. Secondly, Amouzou’s work addresses issues around black African diaspora that interests me and resonates with the writing of Tina Campt. And finally, her photographs often seem to involve multiple images in a similar way to some of Harry Callahan’s work.
I am interested to further consider the idea of the diasporic movement of people with circumstances of my mother, who for lockdown reasons was ‘forced’ to move from her home of fifty years. Let me say, of course, that I am NOT making any comparisons with her plight to the seriousness of black African diaspora. Of course, I am not. But there are at least some conceptual similarities albeit for very different reasons. There is also the juxtaposition, for my mother (and many, many millions of people worldwide), of on the one hand being ‘forced’ to move for safety reasons and simultaneously being told to remain put for an indefinite period of time.
Information about Amouzou is limited so I purchased the book ‘African Cosmologies; Photography, Time, and the Other’. The recently published book features the work of 33 African photographers, including Amouzou. Organised and edited by Mark Sealey, Steven Evans and Max Fields the book seeks to assist with the expansion of ‘discourses surrounding African art, culture and diasporic histories’ (1).
The section of the book featuring Amouzou features six self-portraits (one self-absented of a dress) taken by the artist when awaiting the outcome of her asylum application in Belgium. Arguably the most iconic image is shown below together with words about her from the book.
‘Togo born artist Hélène Amouzou captured this evocative and haunting series of self-portraits during the first year of a two year period during which she sought asylum in Belgium. The ghostly quality of her figure represents her struggle to become a Belgian citizen, both legally and socially. Amouzou renders these photographs of herself seated in the dimly lit attic above her transitional housing unit in stark black and white. The setting with its cracked window frames, peeling wallpaper, and dying plants, seems as if it is crumbling, much like Amouzou’s resolve throughout the extended waiting period to receive her official residence visa. With her life in this state of flux, Amouzou’s portraits feel similarly unsettled. Her body floats in and out of her suitcases, nothing having felt comfortable enough to completely unpack, always ready to have to go back home.’ (1:41)
(1) FOTOFEST., 2020. AFRICAN COSMOLOGIES. Houston, Texas: SCHILT PUBLISHING B V.